Jane Smiley Interview

She won a Pulitzer for, A Thousand Acres, a Lear-dark tragedy set on a farm, then followed it with Moo, a send-up of a Midwestern university. So I knew Jane Smiley could surprise. What I did not expect, after all the rural angst and antics, was a dispassionate, Vassar-cool critique of the baby boomers. Maybe Smiley, who teaches creative writing at Iowa State, has spent too many years watching her baby-boom peers deconstruct theory, language and culture. In print, she pries apart the psyche of her characters; in public, she resists even the gen tlest tapping on her own. Throughout our conversation, she re mains pleasant, well-bred, uninterested, and my usual gambits-- creative urge, animating beliefs, pain and fear and desire--fall heavy on the hotel carpet. I hunt in vain for cranky academic discontent, or at least a clash between her past and present. But she's always loved college; she says studying English at Vassar was like going to "an intellectually stimulating summer camp. I had a boyfriend from Yale--what could be better?" Assuming the question is rhe torical, I wait politely. Turns out the boyfriend belonged to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Smiley says she remem bers "thinking in total terror that I had become what my parents had warned me against." When I allude delicately to the Sexual Revolution, she exclaims, "Sex had nothing to do with it. I was hanging out with communists!" I brighten at the thought of an ideological passion, but Smiley says she dated him because he was 6-10 (she's over 6 feet herself). "He was the only alternative, boyfriend-wise, and so he began educating me," she smiles. "It wasn't easy; we argued for the entire length of our relationship." She remembers sitting outside on the steps at an SDS rally in Boston, bored to tears. "I was viewed as unserious in the extreme, because I had 'artis tic aspirations,'" she confesses. "A guy sitting out there said, 'What they don't realize is that the big issue is the environ ment,' and I said, 'Oh, I think that's true!'" I'm expecting to hear that she started dating the man on the steps, and he was tall, too. Instead, she continues talking about the environment. Suddenly, I realize it's her sense of space--of the flat, dry fields that shape a farmer's life--that gives her cool distance, lets her see us like an eagle. Which is why she make observations like: "Baby boomers have only two talents: the talent for friendship and the talent to design recreational equipment." After watching her mother and stepfather "entertain" to fulfill business and social obligations, the only obligation she'll honor is the desire to hang out with her friends. "This whole family-values thing is a way of recognizing the desire to make your family life as conge nial as your life with your friends," she says firmly. You can't buy friends, of course, but if you're a true boomer, you can buy everything else. Smiley says that, ever since they shopped for backpacks in '69, she and her peers have been convinced they're entitled to the best piece of equipment money can buy. "Iowa State just put up a big rec center, and they advertised it as 'the best rec center on a university campus,'" she reports. "You can appeal to any administrator by saying you have the best blah-blah--students, labs, whatever." In Smiley's opinion, the very good is often better than the best: "By the law of diminishing returns, you have to pay more and more for those last few increments of value," she notes crisply. Then she starts to reminisce about her childhood: "That woman who showed you the Amana refrigerator, she had a particular way of moving," she notes. "And there were the washing machine ads, and the car ads ..." Smiley thinks the cultural explosion of the '60s grew out of not just a newly insatiable consumerism but also "this inter esting relation between the way we were educated during the Cold War '50s and what we discarded when we got to college. People always say our generation was very idealistic--I don't think that comes from the drinking water. Our schoolbooks had a clear propa ganda purpose. They were intended to prepare you for the ultimate sacrifice: 'Better dead than Red.'" She recalls being terrified by the news, asking her parents if they had a bomb shelter. "Nobody was able to reassure me," she recalls. "All they could say was, 'If there is a war, you will want to die, because it will be so horrible afterward.' Better that the world be decimated than that we should become communist! It was the height of ideological narcissism, on both sides." Then came Vietnam. "The very naive, very positive way we had been taught to think about our country didn't jibe with what was happening in Vietnam," she recalls. "College liberated you from this lockstep way of looking at the world--but no one pre pared you to understand how to go on from there." So you buy the best, keep your friends and get really good at deconstructing other people's ideologies. # # #

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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